The truth (about my self-righteous game plan)

by Cara McDonough

When I wrote that inspiring post back in early January, the world fresh with 2016 promise, I had a few goals in mind.

One was to create more material to write about. More mini, and actual, adventures. Because the thing is that I'm not an entertainment writer, and watching TV every night wasn't gonna get me there. I admit that I made the plan, in part, to force myself into writing some good essays, or maybe even a book about this year's-worth of major to-do items. 

But there is more to it than that. I've spent the last several years being pregnant and feeding, comforting and otherwise caring for young children. That's not all I've been doing, obviously, but it's utilized a lot of my energy. It took me awhile - certainly past Nora's babyhood - to realize that reveling in that new-mom downtime was not only ok, but a pretty great way to spend your days. 

I don't feel that anxious concern I once did when I had my first baby, lost my job and then wondered if I'd ever complete all my professional goals. In fact, I haven't really been sure what my professional goals are anymore. I think I'm getting them back just now, at 38-years-old. That's ok with me, too. 

Listen. I could get all philosophical with this topic. I could talk about the importance and value of caregiving, but Anne Marie Slaughter has already done a terrific job on that. Or I could talk about how it doesn't matter if you work, stay home, or do something in between, parenthood is challenging, but, like, one billion mothers have already done that in compelling online essays. 

I think what I need to do, instead, is voice personal feelings about my role as a mother, as a writer and, you know, just in general. And the truth there is that I have been feeling kind of dumpy. 

"Kind Of Dumpy: The Cara McDonough story." You'd buy that book, right?

Let me clarify that I don't think I have been a bad mother, or wife or employee or any of those things. I actually think I've been really good at those things since J and I had children. And let me also say that I think the modern parenthood movement (mothers in particular) have done a wonderful, persuasive job of assuring everyone out there that you don't have to "do it all."  

Sometimes, though, and I feel like I have to be careful here, it feels TOO persuasive to me. Rejoicing in doing the bare minimum feels good when you need it, but it doesn't feel good all the time. 

I don't feel the need to do it all, per se, and I also don't feel the need - anymore, anyway - to write about "doing it all," or the modern day challenges of family life. I'd rather just do the best job I can at home and at work and with my freelance career, and support politicians and other influencial types who are championing important legislation and ideas. 

But while I know - I know, you guys - that I don't have to "do it all," I'd still like to do more. When I do relax I want it to feel really good, and justified. 

Plus, I'd love my downtime to at least sometimes consist of things I used to find truly relaxing, like reading. Running, even, is often a huge stress reliever for me. But most of the time I go for the most expedient route to "relaxation." My phone. Sweatpants in bed. And it doesn't feel as good as those other activities would feel. It really doesn't. It's like when you want something sweet and you opt for the pure sugar rush of the leftover Easter candy (which someone may or may not have just gotten into right now) rather than indulging in some quality dark chocolate. There's room for the former, for sure, but you should do some of the latter, too; that more worth it, less accessible thing. 

So, another reason I made that year-long to-do list was to make my time more satisfying, productive and relaxing. And maybe even do some good for the world, and myself, in the process. 

Most importantly, though, I want my kids (especially Nora, simply because she's at such an impressionable age) to see me doing things I love; things that mean something. 

That's why I really wrote that list. 

I've been doing an ok job so far. Not great, but not bad either. I'm flailing on the recipes thing and going to South America seems unlikely. But I'm raising money for the American Cancer Society for a guaranteed spot in the NYC Marathon, and I applied to a writing program (and entered a writing contest too...I didn't win). I've already seen a few shows this year and have some volunteer ideas. "Ulysses," well, I'll get there, I guess. Damnit, Joyce!

Anyway, I thought I'd share a little background on my thinking since, like I said before, I'd planned to write about this process and I haven't been doing too much of that. There's time, though. Just like there's time for listening to Spanish tutorials in my car, which could be helping me learn that language, another of my goals.

Although, minor victory, Nora - whose school curriculum is half in Spanish - has already taught me two words. "Rana," which means frog, and another one...which I have already completely forgotten. So, a rather minor victory, but I'm on my way. 

list of complaints

by Cara McDonough

I am in not the greatest mood, probably a result of being away for a week - visiting my parents in Maryland - during the kids' spring break and the inevitable let-down that occurs when you return to normal life. Nora was experiencing this same feeling this morning, I think, but instead of the quiet grumbling I am doing, her mood manifested in open weeping and my having to pull her out of her bed (top bunk) and force clothes onto her flailing body. 

I thought that instead of suffering silently, I'd make a list of my concerns so that I can begin to address them. And that I'd share them with you so that we can all celebrate how selfish I am being today. I feel better already. 

  • pants are too tight
  • feeling politically confused 
  • not warm enough yet
  • price of dog medicines 
  • congestion possibly related to allergies, even though I claim I don't have allergies
  • conflicted about whether or not I still like "Game of Thrones"
  • our plumbing is not good (generalization of a more specific problem I do not understand)
  • unsure about what to make for dinner always
  • lack of book deals
  • how do they get the minivan so, SO dirty, in a matter of, like, five minutes? 

I cannot believe I'm writing this (a post about home improvement)

by Cara McDonough

One of the things that often occurs when we have one of those utter rarities - a completely free weekend - is that my husband and I get very excited about improving our home, mostly concentrating on what seems to be the most popular theme in modern-day culture: decluttering. 

And decluttering feels great, especially when you have kids who bring roughly 400 extremely special and important new belongings in with them every time they enter the house, like a barette one of their buddies clipped in their hair at school, even though we have discussed on numerous occasions the topic: "Please, I am begging you, do not share hair stuff at school."

Or maybe it's a weird little structure handcrafted from paper and decorative tape, and your son explains that it's a present for you to open...that he made himself! So you go to open it but you are not opening it in the right way, and then you have ruined everythng. Everything. 

Yes. Decluttering, and ridding your home of these once-crucial-now-forgotten items, is wonderful. 

But this weekend, inspired by a few design sites I'd been exploring, I decided it would be fun to take on a project that would provide a more immediate and heightened sense of joy than the dutiful act of decluttering. I had a little time to myself while J and the kids were outside and the baby was napping. So, intoxicated by the prospect of an hour alone in my home with nothing to do, I went into our kitchen to start on an idea I had. 

We have an open, recessed pantry-type area between our kitchen and our dining room, where we've always kept food. I don't mind the food being on display, exactly (although I have found myself hiding junk food in the back over the years, placing things like a five-year-old box of red quinoa at the front although it is a staple in our diet, hilarious). But pasta boxes and plastic bags of pretzels are most certainly not the most lovely things we own.

And because we live in a small space where every detail makes a difference, and because I'm a grownup, and grownups are allowed to occasionally be deeply affected by superficial things like sprucing up their homes, I decided, "Enough with this pantry being messy but useful. I want it to MAKE ME HAPPY."  

So I took all the food out and put it in the smaller cabinet by the stove. 

Then I took all the plates and bowls, mugs, glasses and cookbooks I love the most and put them on the shelves in the pantry. 

Then J came in and he thought it looked awesome, but that painting it might make it even better.  

So I went out and bought bright turquoise paint, and he got to work. 

The result: a once cluttered and stress-inducing space turned bright and joyful. Plus, it makes a lot more sense to keep the food in the cabinet that is actually IN the kitchen, adjacent to the stove.

Also, by displaying only the nice-looking and healthy items, like the fruit, we are way more likely to eat that stuff. Experts are always going on about this, and I never believe them. Like, "Oh, ok, so what you are saying is that if I want to eat all the leftover Easter candy, but there is an apple out in a bowl, I am more likely to eat the apple, which will fulfill my craving for sweets with its natural sugars?" 

Well, actually, in that case, no, I am still going to find the candy buried in whatever cabinet or drawer. But still, hiding the less healthy options does work at least sometimes. 

 Should we have realized all this sooner? Eight years ago when we moved in, perhaps? Sure. There are so many home projects that fit that category, like how we probably should have fenced in the backyard right away, or added a screen to the sliding glass door to give us extra breeze during the height of summer, minus the threat of mosquitoes. 

But thanks to our procrastination, we now have a whole bunch of home improvement projects to look forward to, for instance, fixing the bathroom doorknob so that it doesn't fall off every couple of months, which is, crazy enough, something we've come to accept as part of normal life. And which might be why I find it so soothing to be in public bathroom stalls that lock, which is decidedly a not-totally-normal feeling. 

This is my new productivity tool, and it is going pretty well

by Cara McDonough in

It is called, "write the things you need to do into the current day in your datebook, and then do them."

You see, I have tried various methods of getting things done (a.k.a. "GTD" to the nerds amongst you, and please note: I will not call it that) including a number of excellent tips and tricks J has picked up listening to productivity podcasts and reading books on the topic. 

Like the "power hour" idea he shared with me once, where you work for ten minutes, and then you get to take a break for two. Repeat, repeat, repeat. This works wonders when I'm having trouble starting a project, and I often find that when I really get going, I don't even need the two-minute break.  

I also use a program called Things to list the various items I must complete, which I like a lot, because I can add a bunch of ideas at once when I'm feeling overwhelmed, and later categorize them and give myself deadlines. 

Sometimes, however, I don't open Things right away, or I do and I think, "That looks like a lot of stuff!" Then I close it. 

So I turned to the lovely date book J got me for Christmas, which has colorful, decorative birds on the cover. This date book doesn't really have a purpose, since several months ago I admitted that I needed to get with the program and start using the calendar on my phone like everybody else in the world (and quickly realized everyone else in the world was correct, it is SO much easier than the paper version). 

But the date book...with the birds! I carried it around in my bag because I liked it so much, but didn't have much use for it. 

Until one incredibly busy morning, when, feelling rushed and knowing I had to get a lot done in a short period of time, I took out the date book and wrote a short list of things that absolutely had to be done that day. Right there where I could see them, in the small space allotted for the current date. I would cross them off as I went. 

And that's what I've been doing since. Not every day, but when I need a quick primer on what lies ahead, an overview of my priorities. It's something I can look at in the evening after the kids have gone to bed - without having to pick up my phone or computer - and think, "You didn't do this one thing. Do you have the energy to work on that right now for 20 minutes?" 

Sometimes I do! 

Sometimes I do not. 

Either way, it'll be there in the morning, a happy reminder of something I completed, or an item that still needs my attention. Maybe one day I'll write my own productivity book. Although I sincerely doubt it, considering my most powerful ideas so far are: 1. Write everything down and 2. Do not catch up on "Scandal" in the middle of the day.